A closer look at Russia’s strongman

Like many Americans, I have a grudging respect for Vladimir Putin, while recognizing that he is no friend of democracy and freedom.

Vladimir Putin may lie, but he doesn’t lie to himself.  He acts decisively.  He doesn’t make idle threats.  He doesn’t pretend to be anything except what he is, which is a ruthless, autocratic Russian nationalist.

It is absurd to compare him to Hitler or Stalin.  In a totalitarian country, such as Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or Saddam’s Iraq, everyone lives in fear, and for good reason.  In a merely authoritarian country, such as present-day China or Iran, an ordinary person can live in peace provided they keep their mouth shut, mind their own business and don’t make trouble.  Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian country, not a totalitarian one.

In Russia’s “managed democracy”, there is no Stalin-like reign of terror, and the government tolerates a certain amount of dissent.  But journalists or politicians who threaten the regime die mysteriously or wind up in prison.

Putin  is deservedly popular with the Russian people.  He has been a much more effective leader than Mikhail Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin.   When he came to power, Russia was collapsing.   Under his leadership, Russia has restored orderly government and reversed its economic decline by developing its oil and gas resources.  Russians are drilling for oil and gas in the warming Arctic as well as exploiting the oil and gas reserves of central Asia.worldaccordingtoputin

What Putin has not done, however, is to transform Russia in a modern industrial state.  Russia is a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe, but who buys Russian automobiles or computers?  In any American department store, I read labels of products that are made in countries such as China, Malaysia or Bangladesh, but never anything made in Russia.  Unless things change, Russia’s destiny to be a hinterland supplying energy to the advanced economies of China and Europe, and that will last only until the fossil fuels run out.

Putin’s great skill is in political warfare.   He has outmaneuvered and crushed his opponents at home, and he has enhanced Russia’s power abroad through a skillful mix of diplomacy, propaganda, economic influence and precisely targeted military action.

I think that Americans and Europeans need to be wary of Russian propaganda and economic influence.  At the same time, I don’t think the United States has any intrinsic conflict of interest with Putin’s Russia.  The United States is obligated to stand by its treaty commitment to defend the Baltic states [1], Poland, Hungary and other new NATO countries against attack by Russia, but there is no obligation or benefit in drawing Ukraine, Georgia or other former Soviet republics into an anti-Russian alliance,

The story is told that ancient Greek philosopher Solon, when he was commissioned to write a constitution for Athens, was asked whether he would write the best laws that he could devise.  No, replied Solon, he intended to write the best laws that the Athenians were capable of accepting.  Is Vladimir Putin the best that the Russians are capable of accepting?  He is immensely popular now, but he may not always be so.


The Accidental Autocrat by Paul Starobin in The Atlantic. This 2005 article is the best analysis of Putin’s character and thinking that I’ve read and the most favorable depiction of him that is compatible with the facts.

Vladimir Putin: The rebuilding of ‘Soviet’ Russia by Oliver Bullough of the BBC.

Let the Past Collapse on Time! by Vladimir Sorokin in The New Republic.  Putin through the eyes of a Russian dissident.

Putin’s Bank Trail Runs From Communist Cash to Russia’s New Billionaires by Irina Reznik and Eugenia Pismennaya for Bloomberg News.   I long thought that Putin was like the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, someone who made use of corrupt people to maintain his power, but who himself was not interested in personal gain.  This article indicates I may have given Putin too much credit.

Russia’s Surveillance State by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan for the World Policy Institute.   The Russian security services put the U.S. National Security Agency in the shade.

How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare by Peter Pomerantsev for Foreign Policy.  Putin’s Russia wages political warfare by a formidable mix of diplomacy, propaganda, economic influence, covert action and targeted military action.   The United States needs more than a military buildup and idle military threats in order to counter Russia’s “non-linear” political warfare

[1]  The Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, are different from Ukraine and Georgia in that they were not part of the original Soviet Union, but instead were independent states that the Soviet Union conquered in 1940.

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4 Responses to “A closer look at Russia’s strongman”

  1. Gunny G Says:

    Reblogged this on CLINGERS… BLOGGING BAD ~ DICK.G: AMERICAN !.


  2. Clara Says:

    I strongly disagree, he is the worst then Stalin!


  3. peteybee Says:

    I think Gorbachev was a great leader. He recognized that the USSR was hopelessly dysfunctional and needed to be wound down, and managed that process in a 99% peaceful way. If only Obama had such integrity… we can only dream. How many big scary empires come to such a neat end.

    The aftermath was another matter, as the country was basically raped by various “biznessman”, under a helpless Yeltsin. This is where Putin is coming from.

    At the moment I think Russia is more like Canada, but with a bigger military, plus the added memory of how to play “cold war”, plus a fair amount of trauma. Not really like either the US or China or Western European, if you pretend it’s country.

    Don’t be fooled, he’s not a nice guy. But the stuff we have done to various helpless countries in “proxy wars” against Russia makes him Putin like a moderate.

    I also don’t think he’s some kind of super strategic genius or a beacon of freedom or anything like that. He’s doing what he can with the resources he has. He has demonstrated that he can learn too — he is copying US propaganda tactics, copying what worked in Iraq (simply bribe your opponents!). Not making giant power-moves all the time like Stalin, but not that smooth either- no reason to expect that.

    I think Putin is in a severely disadvantaged position. Surrounded by US forces, could be cut off from western banking and finance at any moment, he would be more than willing to compromise — even aggressive crazy Russians like Khrushchev have done so.

    The one thing he has going for him is that under Bush, the US has pretty much alienated everyone and completely eliminated any image of trustworthiness we have (compare to: “credibility” aka “intimidation”). This helps Putin.

    Also under Bush, our Executive branch was purged of most of its talent, and I get the feeling the current management was more or less hand-picked for their lack of integrity, so that they would go along with the various NeoCon adventures. (oh how their gifts keep on giving!). Also for some strange reason, Obama left all these fine birds in place… Might have been his biggest blunder.

    Anyhow what if the current State Dept staff, who brought us Iraq, were rewarded for their fine work with an extended vacation to the Jersey Shore for the whole entire summer, then to Cancun for the fall and Hawaii for the winter? They could be replaced by college interns, then maybe we could straighten out this whole mess. Ah well, dreaming again.

    Let me finish by saying I really, really, really DON’T want someone like Putin running the US.


  4. asmita Says:

    When the author says Russia has no tech super brands to boot like the US does, i really want to ask if they consider military hardware and tech super brands or not? Russian military tech is still coveted and purchased by a really large part of the world sometimes even preferred over american hardware!

    considering where Russia was in 1998 (a default, natural resources in the hands of private players who let the state foot the bill for production and made a killing showing losses on sales, raging wars and parts of the country ready to break away (Yeltsin’s PM who resigned and announced that Putin was being given the job literally gave his reason for resignation as his inability to contain the insurgencies in dagestan and Chechnya), salaries and pensions not being paid for half a year, etc., a rapidly declining population, the world ridiculing them, etc), the place looks much better today doesn’t it?

    I feel a lot of people just dont get that this is a guy that represents the mindset and needs and wants of 90% of the country. 90% of russia hates the west right now for what they’ve been saying and doing against russia. but somehow as outsiders we only hear the 10% that are completely anti-putin and extremely vocal. If we want to really put a label on him and say if he’s good or bad, then we must ask “good or bad for whom”? for the russians, he has been good. for those that want russia with no bargaining chips on any tables, he’s bad.

    in every putin related debate, we have people saying he’s corrupt and promoting a corrupt system. wrong. russia as a whole is corrupt. the million plus bureaucrats and politicians that russia currently relies on are corrupt. the people that bribe them are corrupt. the people that aspire to become them so they too can be rich and powerful are corrupt. and all these people are corrupt for a reason. none of them have really seen private property or real money or real luxury in their lifetimes. when we dont expect western entrepreneurs and politicians to be 100% morally correct and corruption-free, why should we expect only these people to have those traits? granted government corruption is bad. but is it worse than mindless profiteering by private individuals in the name of capitalism? both screw the masses over.

    russia today is at that stage of democratic development where corruption in government bodies is widespread and the gap between the haves and the have nots is really wide. But that’s been the case with almost every “democracy” anywhere in the world, including India. and nobody wants to “contain” india even though we have a few nukes and we spend a huge amount of our GDP on defense. putin may not be the best head of state in the world but at the moment, he seems to be the best by comparison. he knows his voters. he does things for his voters. and he seems to have his priorities right- defend the country first (from all acts of aggression, including NATO at it’s borders, color revolutions, economic sanctions, demonization of it’s leadership) and take care of other things second. there is literally no other country in the world at the moment, no G8 member, in the last 50 years, has faced the situation that russia has been in since 1991.

    Now, would we ever want a Putin heading the US? Hell NO!!! that country is bad as it is for everyone on the planet without having a Putin at the helm. besides, everyone in the US already thinks they’re the kings of the world. Russia ’99 when Putin came to power wasnt even the king of their own federation. that’s why someone like Putin was good for them. but perhaps those that live in the US feel things are as bad for them as they were for russians in ’98-99 that they could use a Putin of their own!

    Liked by 1 person

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